Friday, 23 March 2012

The Archbishop we don't need (but will probably get)

Central to the role of the next Archbishop of Canterbury will be his views on human sexuality, not because that is the most important thing about Christian theology (though it is quite important), but because the agenda of our society will make it so.
The accusation is often made that the Church is obsessed with sex, and by ‘the Church’ is meant ‘the Church as represented by traditional believers’. But it is not traditional believers who have been making the running on issues of human sexuality in the last sixty years.
The British Library Catalogue lists just one book published before 1964 on the subject of ‘Christianity and homosexuality’, which is D S Bailey’s Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (1955).
In the 1960s there are four more titles, two published by the theologically liberal SCM Press. In the 1970s there are thirty-four titles, eight published by the Gay Christian Movement. In the 1980s this increases to forty-six titles. In the 1990s there are one hundred and fifty-seven titles and in the first decade of the new millennium one hundred and seventy-seven. Since 2010, a further twenty-five titles have been added. The majority in every decade reflect the revisionist perspective.
In other words, the traditionalist ‘obsession’ with issues of sexuality is actually reactive, not proactive. The obsession has lain outside the ranks of traditional Christian faith and practice, where the concern has simply been (although that was difficult enough) with the maintenance of established boundaries.
When it comes to the new Archbishop, what we don’t need is, I very much fear, exactly what we are going to get, namely a man who will on the one hand declare his personal support for ‘the traditional view of marriage’, but on the other hand a willingness to ‘engage in the important conversation we need to have about issues of sexuality’.
If this is the man we get, his support for traditionalism will disarm the conservatives and his openness to the ‘conversation’ will ensure the further inroads of revisionism.
In the present context, a statement of ‘support’ for the traditional understanding of marriage is effectively meaningless. After all, even the Bishop of Salisbury, who is quite clear about his position, has declared his commitment to ‘Supporting marriage as it is currently understood’. The question at present is not what we support, but what we oppose.
But the real problem is the notion of continuing conversation.
Regarding such a conversation, there are only two real possible outcomes. The first is that after some time, it is decided that the ‘current understanding’ of marriage is right and other alternatives are wrong. The second is to decide that we can add other ‘understandings’ of marriage to our ‘current understanding’ — that is the view of the present government, and will lead to significant social change.
Some will say, there is a third possibility, namely to go on talking — but that is not an outcome of the conversation, it is simply the conversation itself. Eventually there must, and will, be actual outcomes.
Now if the new Archbishop really desired change, it would be better for him to say so. It would be much healthier for everyone, especially with the likely defeat of the Anglican Covenant to be clear about where we stand and which side of the debate we are on.
However, if he is really a true traditionalist, then offering ‘conversation’ is not only disingenuous but dangerous. What we need from him in that case is not conversation but teaching, which affirms and reinforces the traditional view.
And we could certainly do with that now. It has always struck me that one of the ironies of Jeffery John’s little book (about to be reprinted) is called Permanent, Faithful, Stable. John’s argument, essentially, is that same-sex relationships can, in the words of the title, have the same characteristics as heterosexual relationships. But permanency has long ceased to be a demand of the Church of England when it comes to marriage. Why, then, should it be a requirement for other relationships?
I have also remarked that, given our attitude to what Jesus said about divorce, it doesn’t really matter that he didn’t say anything specific about homosexuality, since it hasn’t stopped us disregarding him when we so choose.
The interesting thing about Jesus’ teaching on this subject is that it was clearly widely known as his personal view by the early Church. When the apostle Paul tells the Corinthian Christians that they may separate if necessary, but never divorce, he adds that he has this command from the Lord.
It is also significant that the widespread disobedience to this command is used as a kind of tu quoque argument in favour of same-sex relationships. The logic is false (two wrongs actually don’t make a right), but the sense is compelling — we don’t do what Jesus said here (in fact Desmond Tutu went so far as to say we know Jesus got it wrong), so why should we insist on strictness in other areas?
A useful question might therefore be this: which of our bishops currently upholds and teaches the scriptural view of marriage? I have recently had to do some work on Canon C18. Much attention is focussed at the moment on what it has to say about the bishop’s authority:
Every bishop is the chief pastor of all that are within his diocese, as well laity as clergy, and their father in God ...
Perhaps at the present time a little more attention should be paid to what it next says about the bishop’s ministry:
... it appertains to his office to teach and to uphold sound and wholesome doctrine, and to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange opinions ...
When Jesus was asked his opinion about divorce he gave it. Any opinion to the contrary is surely ‘erroneous and strange’. Let’s give that some thought in our present debates.
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  1. I mostly agree with you.

    My hestitation is that I don't think it's helpful to conflate the issues of divorce and homosexual practice. With divorce, there is genuine discussion over what Scripture teaches. Does it teach:
    * divorce allowable if the husband fails to provide shelter, food, love (as in the OT)
    * divorce discouraged but allowable only in the case of adultery (as surface reading of Matthew)
    * divorce always banned (as surface reading of Luke)
    * divorce discouraged but allowable only in the case of abandonment by non-Christian spouse (as in 1 Cor).
    * divorce allowable after physical abuse (as Calvin, IIRC)

    Personally, I found David Instone-Brewer's writings on divorce helpful, not because it led to a more socially liberal perspective (it did, slightly, but I don't have a problem with being seen as socially illiberal) but because it helped me understand how the Bible taught a consistent message on divorce.

    As far as I know, there is no such debate on homosexuality. I'm not aware of a single respectable Biblical scholar who argues from the Bible that it should be permitted. If there's a conversation, it should be primarily about Biblical ethics, with contributions from wise Christian writers through the ages and from other cultures who can therefore help us see where we are being led astray by our own culture.

    John Allister, Macclesfield, Cheshire

  2. Thank you for this (including the striking British Library Catalogue survey)!

    A footnote on one aspect of the scope and depth of the problem. You write, "it is not traditional believers who have been making the running on issues of human sexuality in the last sixty years."

    The last sixty years: but 70 years ago, in Mere Christianity, Lewis wrote, "you and I, for the last twenty years, have been fed all day long on good solid lies about sex" (III.5). I don't know if he means, c. 1930, or if that sentence is unrevised from the 1943 publication of Christian Behaviour: if unrevised, that would bring us to c. 1920, which seems likely enough.

    And if we turn from academic books "on the subject of ‘Christianity and homosexuality" before 1964 to more popular reading, think, for example, of Barbara Pym's A Glass of Blessings (originally entitled The Clergy House), published in 1958.

    The "true traditionalist" seems faced with a sort of anthropogenic social climate change of massive proportions.

    Psalomon Psmith, Polderholt, The Low Countries

  3. John Allister is "not aware of a single respectable Biblical scholar who argues from the Bible that it should be permitted" - I suppose it all depends on what you mean by 'respectable Biblical scholar'. For what I think are pretty thorough discussions of the texts, see writers such as these:
    Michael Vasey, Strangers and Friends
    Gareth Moore, OP, A Question of Truth
    or anything by James Alison, especially Faith Beyond Resentment


  4. Sam, you can read a review of Vasey's work I wrote a long time ago here. I've had a brief look at Allison, but not at Moore. Certainly I found John's case weak, as also Vasey's. That is not to say the attempt is not made, only that it is scarcely compelling, and I think we see this in the overall approach within the Church.

  5. Graham Jones will be the new ABC. He is Rowan Williams's choice and the Church hierachy disapprove of Sentamu's stance on gay marriage. The decision was made back in February. Cameron will just rubber stamp it.

  6. Thanks, John, I'll read your review. The Moore is the most intellectually robust.

  7. Where does the change in the C of E 's view on contraception between 1930 and 1958 fit in ? The traditional view..still held in Rome, Orthodoxy ( more or less) and some parts of conservative Protestantism suggest the C of E's departure from Traditional sexual morality ( and equivocation over masturbation since the early sixties) suggest the slide from orthodoxy is long standing? Perry Butler, Canterbury

  8. I don't think that a new archbishop who claims to be personally traditional but in favor of conversation is going to fool anyone. All he would do is to render his office even more obsolete to what's really happening in the Anglican Communion than it already is.

  9. I feel as though I am in the foyer of a funeral home, watching two people standing next to a casket, while one of them is holding the wrist of the occupant of the casket he turns to the other person and says "I think I'm getting a pulse." The Liberals don't care who they get as the next ABC, as long as he realizes who's really in charge. The Conservatives are like the man in my analogy, still searching for a pulse.

  10. I'm inclined to agree with Fr. Jonathan - this is what has already happened with ++Williams. Liberals and conservatives alike are awake to it. Neither will be happy with it again, for different reasons.